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Right-of-Way Local Public Agency Program - Best Management Practices

Fundamental Aspects of WSDOT's Communication Model

The fundamental aspects of moving forward as an organization outlined in this section are approaches proven effective for teams to enhance knowledge, problem solving ability, and skills in order to obtain process improvement. Successful performance of these key tasks has been shown to both improve performance and increase customer satisfaction in a wide variety of governmental, non-governmental, and private organizations. As evidenced by the following sections, WSDOT and its local agencies use many of the following methods in its day-to-day collaboration efforts:

5.1 Strategic Planning

In the State of Washington transportation process, strategic planning is coordinated simultaneously with communication from the bottom up, and leadership from the top down, through a continuous strategic planning loop.

The transportation planning process begins by the Transportation Commission, which develops goals and policies. These items, with adopted legislation, form the basis for the Washington Transportation Plan. The Plan also identifies responsibilities for each of the key stakeholders: the state, local public agencies, the private sector, and the Federal government.

5.2 Commitment

One of the striking items about the WSDOT/local agency program is the commitment that the organizations and individuals exhibit. The building of a strong communication system must begin with management commitment to and acceptance of the program, and must extend to everyone involved in the process. At the state level, management should produce a policy statement declaring its agreement with the commitment to principles of the management model. Without such a commitment, the processes and procedures put into place have little chance to succeed. Local agencies that do not envision this level of commitment are unlikely to embrace the program.

WSDOT declares this commitment in several important ways. For example, the Transportation Commission has as one of its policy objectives, "Cooperate and coordinate with public and private transportation partners so that systems work together cost effectively." This is supported by published desired outcomes of the Washington Transportation Plan, all of which include such values as a common vision, jointly set priorities, regional coordinated transportation efforts, and coordinated implementation plans, as noted above. WSDOT's operating guidelines further underscore this point: "We partner with others. We openly and clearly communicate. We are committed to each other's successes."

Customer service is another stated operating guideline for the agency. The Olympia Service Center (OSC) Manager and the local agency coordinators demonstrate this commitment in the way they provide assistance. Regardless of how difficult the request or how unrealistic the time frame, these staff members strive to meet or exceed the local agency's expectations. For example, requests for training assistance are frequently handled in a matter of days rather than a matter of weeks. As soon as the OSC Manager receives the request for assistance from the region level, it becomes a high priority, with responsiveness as the measure of success. This willingness to do whatever it takes to serve the needs of the local agencies has generated great respect for the Local Agency Oversight Program-and more importantly for the OSC Manager who operates it.

This level of responsiveness and commitment to customer service also leads to more committed relationships between these collaborating agencies. This leads to mutual accountability, as both parties feel responsible to one another to fulfill designated job duties because of the quality of this previous service delivery.

WSDOT understands that customer service is a moving target, and, as such, uses the Baldrige value of customer-driven quality in which the customers judge the quality. In this instance, the customers are the local agencies. The fact that WSDOT listens to what the customer wants and needs was very well understood. During the interviewing process which was designed to discuss why WSDOT and local agencies' working relationship was so successful-and yes, to tout how wonderful the program was-they did not need to say a word. Actions at this time were more important than words. The individuals present during this interview included Highways and Local Programs Olympia Service Center staff, a representative from FHWA, ROW staff, and the Olympia Service Center Local Area Coordinator Manager. Next, a visit from the Deputy Director of Real Estate Services delightfully interrupted this meeting to discuss the real issues at hand-the Federal certification of a project for the RES Olympic region and its local agency so that the project could go to construction. A five-minute creative brainstorming session occurred right before this consultant's eyes resulting in possible solutions for this certification. The next afternoon, at the RES Olympic Region office, the project was the first thing discussed, prior to any sharing of best management practices. This is a team commitment illustrated first hand. The project and goal-driven client focus was WSDOT's number one commitment.

5.3 Evaluating the Processes

Prior to implementing improvements within an organization, the fundamentals of the key processes utilized by that organization must be evaluated and understood by the key stakeholders. WSDOT demonstrated this knowledge by seeking first to understand the required Federal processes and then to seek ways for the local agencies to be empowered, based on these required processes. The Local Public Agency Oversight program was based on needs identified from this process evaluation, rather than on perceived needs of the various parties. As a result, the services provided by the Olympia Service Center Manager are more responsive to customer needs, while making federal participation more likely. The Federal processes provide a baseline of reality for both parties.WSDOT has also participated in an external audit of its own processes. The Real Estate Acquisition Team (REACT) was established in March of 1998 to evaluate and recommend process improvements on all aspects of ROW acquisition. The team's goal was to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of acquiring real estate as a continuous improvement measure. Team members were selected to include those with expertise on all aspects of the process. A facilitator and technical writer supports them.

The REACT team drafted 24 recommendations during analysis of the real estate acquisition process. Of these recommendations, two were referred to a natural work group, four were dropped, and 18 were moved forward to implementation. The Assistant Secretary of the Environmental and Engineering Service Center reported that full implementation of these recommendations will reduce the number of days required to acquire ROW by a minimum of 26 days and up to 180 days, based on an average 10-parcel project-a clear process improvement!

The 1999 Baldrige Award Criteria for performance excellence in the category of information and analysis was well represented by the WSDOT REACT audit report. This audit also demonstrates that the Baldrige value of continuous improvement and learning, as WSDOT adapts to change, is growing strong within the agency. This audit assisted WSDOT to adapt to change while evaluating new and fresh approaches. WSDOT understands that organizational planning helps to make sure that analysis is relevant to appropriate technical decision-making. Knowing the benefits and costs associated with improved organizational knowledge will lead to improvement trends in productivity and project cycle time.

5.4 Communication

"Communication is the key to a successful program," states one WSDOT official. This seems to be the cornerstone of the local agency relationship success. All through the agency literature, repeatedly mentioned during staff interviews, and frequently cited in the surveys, was the importance of communication to this process. This communication/relationship role was solidified into a dedicated staff position-the local agency coordinator-specifically charged with establishing and maintaining relationships with the local agencies. Local agency coordinators are charged with keeping contacts open and maintaining early and continuous communication with staff from Highway and Local Programs regarding any pending projects. This continuous communication flow allows WSDOT to respond quickly to work out issues before they become big problems. The following example of a local agency coordinator's job duties comes from the North Seattle area. One hundred percent of the job responsibilities of this staff position involve local public agency procedures:

An administrator located at the OSC headquarters office coordinates the regional coordinators. Local agencies and coordinators may also go directly to this OSC Coordination Manager for assistance, information, or to contract work with WSDOT. The OSC Coordination Manager spends 70% of his time managing the statewide Local Agency Oversight program. Specific job responsibilities include:

The local agency coordinators work at the regional Real Estate Services offices, but specializes in ROW technical knowledge and have a strong functional relationship with the OSC Coordination Manager in the Real Estate Services Office of the Environmental and Engineering Service Center. The Highways & Local Programs Service Center is the portion of WSDOT that is directly responsible for the local agencies using Federal or State funds on roadway projects. The Local Programs regional offices exist to provide assistance to the local agencies in each region. If right of way staffing is insufficient, local agencies may contact the OSC Coordination Manager. If OSC cannot complete the task, this office will assist the local agencies to find an approved consultant. The regional Local Programs Engineer supervises the regional Local Programs office, and serves as technical advisor to local agencies regarding engineering concerns and federal requirements when using federal funds..

The local agency coordinator's duties are considered the highest importance in some regions and of very high importance in others. The coordinators have day-to-day contact with the OSC Manager. The regional RES manager and staff support each coordinator. This allows OSC headquarters to receive constant input from the local agencies through the coordinators.

WSDOT, by creating the Local Programs Engineer and Local Agency Coordinator positions, set the process in motion for excellent intra-agency and extra-agency communication, although WSDOT RES Division made it possible by empowering the right individuals in these respective roles. These individuals are dedicated to the position and make sure the messages are clear, concise and appropriately communicated.

5.5 Training

The ROW Division trains employees on new procedures resulting from process evaluation and modifications. Training includes internal as well as external training programs. Internal programs can involve mentoring, on-the-job training, how-to manuals, training databases, and staff meetings, where information is shared. Mentoring is one-on-one training, whereby senior, experienced staff provide assistance and guidance to new, inexperienced personnel. On-the-job training is another option. Although it can take several forms, on-the-job training is basically teaching new staff as work is performed, correcting errors along the way, and providing advice on how to avoid similar mistakes. Additional training may also be obtained from staff meetings and user groups designed to share information and experiences. Other valuable approaches include employee training manuals, cross-functional role development, internal quality audits, informational databases to track employee training and identify employee training needs, tuition reimbursement, and agency-approved or-sponsored courses. One very important external training course offered by WSDOT to its local agencies is a one-day ROW Procedures Course. This course is offered to local agencies upon request.

In addition to the flexibility of administrative options and the key roles of local agency coordinators, the regional Local Programs engineers, and the OSC Manager, WSDOT provides a plethora of training for staff and local agencies to further empower employees while also ensuring program integrity. The types of training offered include:

These training opportunities are ongoing and provide the participants with technical expertise needed to effectively carry out roles. Additionally, because of the local agency program and the highways and local programs' role, technical assistance is available daily for local agencies in the region where the agencies are located. As a result, local agencies may immediately get assistance at whatever level of expertise required. However, it is important to note that the excellent training program is not what makes the relationship a success between WSDOT RES employees and local agencies. It is the fact that WSDOT RES is sharing its knowledge with its local agencies and empowering the local agencies with mutual respect, trust and knowledge.

5.6 Measurement & Continuous Improvement

"We don't measure it, I just know it works..." was a heartfelt phrase heard from both WSDOT and local agency personnel during the course of this research. To hear this statement from so many individuals is in itself one measure of success, as personal intuition is an important (though often underutilized) measure of success. In other words, people can often tell when things are going well and when things are not, and react accordingly to institute the necessary change.

However, when significant improvements in communication or processes have occurred, as is the case in Washington State, people can sometimes become complacent about those changes and forget that continuous improvement of communication and process is fundamental to an organization's or individual's growth. Therefore, it is usually helpful for an organization to develop a more analytical measure of performance, or performance indicators, to continue challenging the key stakeholders in a process to even greater levels of service.

Many methods exist to measure continuous improvement. The challenge is to find the most efficient, user-friendly process to measure performance in a tangible fashion. Two ways to measure results include internal and external surveys, as performance indicators. Internal and external customer survey forms are excellent ways to acquire performance feedback, process improvements, and problem-solving opportunities. Another good measurement tool is to assess how employees feel about the work environment and the new management system by asking what changes employees would recommend for system improvement.

The Baldrige value of "manage by fact" holds that information needed for performance measurement improvement comes in many forms. Examples of these key data include customer, product and service performance, operations, market, competitive comparisons, supplier, employee related, cost, and financial data. WSDOT uses benchmarking to understand and evaluate its performance. Benchmarking in WSDOT includes customer satisfaction measures. For example, WSDOT OSC staff consistently listens to what its customers want and then focuses to meet or exceed those needs. From an organizational standpoint, the REACT audit conducted in 1998 serves as an internal benchmark before obtaining outside input. The REACT audit was an excellent example of a performance indicator. The audit was designed to evaluate and make process improvement recommendations on all aspects of ROW acquisition. The team's goal was to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the real estate acquisition process as a continuous improvement measure. Looking externally requires bench marking with partners (like local agencies). Sharing information externally using formal surveys and questionnaires can lead to better service, as well as development of interpersonal relationships. Customer feedback received during the project will ensure the customer's desires are built into the services.

The study was conducted by Quality Environmental Professionals, Incorporated (QEPI), of Indianapolis, Indiana, under contract with the Federal Highway Administration Office of Real Estate Services. Principal Investigator for QEPI was Deborah E. Peters.

The cooperation of the Washington State Department of Transportation and their local public agencies is gratefully acknowledged.

This document is disseminated under the sponsorship of the Department of Transportation in the interest of information exchange. The United States Government assumes no liability for its contents or use thereof. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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